Theresa May’s bid to get Tory MPs to back her Brexit plan suffered a set-back as a new poll suggested more than half of Conservative Party members prefer a no-deal withdrawal.
In a three-way choice, 57 per cent of grassroots Tories said they would support leaving the EU without an agreement, while 23 per cent would back the Prime Minister’s deal and 15 per cent would choose to remain. A total of 5 per cent had no preference.
The poll also suggested a two-way referendum would see 29 per cent of Tory members endorse the PM’s stance, with 64 per cent voting for a no-deal Brexit.
The research was carried out by YouGov for the Party Members Project, which studies membership of the UK’s six biggest parties and is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
The overwhelming rejection of Mrs May’s deal shown in the survey comes at a crucial time for the PM as she faces a crunch Commons vote on her plans.
After Mrs May suddenly pulled a vote on the Withdrawal Agreement in December because it faced a significant defeat, MPs are to begin debating the proposals again next Wednesday with a vote scheduled for the following week.
The poll of Tory members is bad news for Mrs May’s hopes of winning support for her deal, said Professor Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London who led research into the findings.
He said: “If Theresa May is hoping that her MPs will return to Westminster having been persuaded by their constituency associations to back her Brexit deal, she’s going to be disappointed.
“It appears that those members are in no mood for compromise.
“Moreover, the Tory rank and file, it seems, are convinced that no deal is better than May’s deal.”
He suggested there were two specific issues behind the opposition to Mrs May’s deal, the first being the Irish backstop.
“Tory members have become convinced that the Irish backstop is a bad idea,” he said, citing that 40 per cent think it is a reason in itself to reject a deal, and 21 per cent think it is irrelevant because Mrs May’s deal “is a bad one anyway”.
The second issue is that 76 per cent of members believed warnings that a no-deal Brexit would cause serious disruption are “exaggerated or invented”.
“In short, Mrs May has failed not only to convince the country, and quite probably Parliament, that her Brexit deal is a good one, she has also failed to convince the party faithful,” Prof Bale said.
The poll findings came as Mrs May’s Brexit agenda was hit by a series of blows.
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds insisted his party’s opposition to Irish border backstop proposals had not lessened after a meeting with the Prime Minister on Thursday.
Mr Dodds said: “The Withdrawal Agreement, as currently proposed, flies in the face of the Government’s commitments on Northern Ireland as we leave the EU.”
However, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar insisted there could be no changes to the backstop, which is intended to prevent a hard border in Ireland by ensuring the UK abides by EU customs rules if no trade deal is agreed by the end of a Brexit transition period.
Mr Varadkar said he had spoken to German chancellor Angela Merkel by telephone on Thursday and the two leaders agreed to “stand by” the Brexit deal.
He said: “We’re happy to offer reassurances and guarantees to the UK, but not reassurances and guarantees that contradict or change what was agreed back in November.”
As the EU closed ranks, the European Commission confirmed “no further meetings are foreseen” with the UK on updating Mrs May’s Brexit deal because negotiations have concluded.
Mrs May is pressing European leaders for more flexibility on the Irish backstop as a way of garnering more backbench support for her exit plans.
Meanwhile, police forces are planning for a variety of Brexit eventualities, including no deal and its potential consequences in Northern Ireland.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council said: “Police forces continue to prepare for possible eventualities as exit from the European Union draws nearer. As it stands, we have not received a formal request for Mutual Aid support from Police Service Northern Ireland.
“Forces routinely share officers through Mutual Aid. When called on, it is used to ensure an appropriate police presence exists where there is increased demand for it.”